We can’t judge tuition based on the NfER’s new report alone

Susannah Hardyman and Ed Marsh point to the limitations of the research which showed some students' progress went backwards with tuition

Susannah Hardyman and Ed Marsh point to the limitations of the research which showed some students' progress went backwards with tuition

20 Oct 2023, 12:10

We believe in tutoring. That’s why we both run charities which provide tutoring to thousands of children across the country – and have done so well before the inception of the National Tutoring Programme. We have seen with our own eyes the benefits it gives to young people, often from disadvantaged backgrounds, as they grasp a concept that had previously eluded them.

But it’s important that tutoring is based on more than what we think or what we see. That’s why, right from the start, our organisations have regularly conducted our own evaluations. In the same year that this week’s NfER evaluation looked at, Action Tutoring pupils outperformed their disadvantaged peers by 8 per cent in primary reading and maths, and by a staggering 19 per cent in GCSE maths. Similarly, Tutor Trust’s EEF-funded RCT showed year 6 pupils receiving maths tutoring made three months’ additional progress compared with their peers. 

We’re pleased to see that the headline results from this official evaluation of the second year of the National Tutoring Programme confirm what we and other research has consistently found: that tutoring has a significant positive impact.

NfER concluded that tutoring in 2021/22 delivered at least a month’s additional progress over the course of the academic year for maths and for English, and further notes that this is likely to be an underestimate. In the context of a lot of challenges that year including difficulties with the main contractor and pupil absences during Covid still running very high, this is a really positive achievement.

When looking at the academic mentor and the tuition partner-led route however, NfER also found that progress was less, and in some cases potentially negative. This is obviously disappointing, but it is worth unpacking a bit.

First, NfER finds that this is likely due to selection bias rather than an accurate finding of actual lost learning. In other words, despite the researchers’ best efforts, the report can’t fully control for the reasons why schools chose pupils or what their prior attainment was. This means the results should be taken with caution. 

The official evaluation confirms that tutoring has a significant positive impact

Second, not least because of the difficulties with the way in which the main contractor ran the system in year 2, the split between what you could call school-led tutoring and what you could call the external tuition partner route is very unclear. For example, close to 80 per cent of the provision run by The Tutor Trust in that year was technically classified as school-led because it was easier for schools to commission external partners like us directly rather than through the main portal. 

And third, we have to acknowledge that not all provision that ran from all external tuition partners was as effective as it might have been. For example, NfER found that some tuition was taking place in the time normally allocated to English and maths lessons. Replacing teaching in those subjects with tuition rather than adding to it is clearly not a good use of time and resource. 

For us, the conclusions are very clear. Regardless of the route taken, tutoring works best when it adheres to a small number of principles. It needs to be aimed at the students who will benefit the most, to be embedded within the school so that it aligns with what students are learning,  to be consistent for the student in terms of tutor, frequency and duration of sessions, to be supported by regular communication with the class teacher, and to be of sufficient duration (at least 12 hours) to make the most difference.

That’s what NfER showed this week. It’s what all the other evidence shows. And it’s what we find too, and what we work to do in every single school we work with.

In the two further years since the time period that this evaluation covers, we have seen further changes among tutoring providers to embed this good practice. We’ve also seen schools grow to understand how to work alongside tutoring partners and their own teaching staff to provide the best option for their students. 

That’s why it’s so important that, as the NfER also recommend, NTP funding doesn’t taper away. Instead, we need to replace the scheme with a simpler, more flexible one that prioritises disadvantaged pupils and delivers far more tuition than happens now (with the same funding) while dramatically reducing the burdens on schools and colleges.

This week, the Education Policy Institute has warned that the disadvantage gap is as wide as it has ever been. Government figures show a 30-point gap in GCSE English and maths passes. Today, NfER shows that disadvantaged pupils can really benefit from high-quality tutoring.

The conclusion is clear: all young people who are academically behind should benefit from tutoring. If they do, everyone wins.

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